Private collection, Vienna
Surrounding outer inscription: MEMORARE NOVISSIMA TVA ET AETERNV(m) NON PECCABIS, ‘Remember thy last end, and thou shalt never sin’ (Sirach 7:40
Inside, there are three levels each showing a corpse in a different stage of decay. The sections are divided by hinged panels with Latin inscriptions that refer to religious scenes related to the Divine Judgement.
The upper border of the coffin and the first originally hinged panel with the gisant inscribed: SVRGITE MORTVI VENITE AD IVDICIVM, ‘Arise ye dead, and come to judgment’ (Thomas Aquinas on the First Epistle to the Thessalonians)
The reverse of the first panel with Christ in Majesty and the wing with the Last Judgement on the front and the Veneration of the Virgin Mary by angels on the reverse inscribed: GLORIA PATRI ET FILIO ET SPIRITVI SANCTO ‘Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost’ (Gloria Patri)The upper border of the coffin and the first originally hinged panel with the gisant inscribed: SVRGITE MORTVI VENITE AD IVDICIVM, ‘Arise ye dead, and come to judgment’ (Thomas Aquinas on the First Epistle to the Thessalonians).
The hinged panel with the transi inscribed on the reverse surrounding the crux hastata: STATVTVM EST HOMINIBUS SEMEL MORI POST HOC IVDICV, ‘And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment’ (Hebrews 9:27).
In the early 15th century in the Netherlands a flourishing industry existed producing works of art in the most varied of genre including painting and sculpture, and in textiles and precious materials. Within this context, from around 1500 until 1530, workshops became established that perfected the manufacture of miniature carvings of religious subjects in boxwood. Little is known about the artists themselves. What is certain is that their eyes were trained to carve the smallest of details with the help of a magnifying glass, that they had the steadiest of hands and used tools of an exceptional quality. Only by using minute chisels, gouges and tiny awls for making holes were they able to work the hard boxwood with such skill.
Thanks to a Latin inscription on a tiny carving in Copenhagen, one name is known: ADAM THEODRICI ME FECIT (Adam Diercksz has made me). Adam Diercksz, from the Netherlands, was probably active in Delft between 1500 and 1530 and is considered the creator of the most beautiful examples of this form of art. More, however, is known about those who commissioned these exquisite miniature carvings. First and foremost this was the Court of the House of Habsburg in Brussels as well as the aristocracy, senior members of the clergy and wealthy citizens.
The small boxwood masterpieces were set in so-called prayer nuts. Little altars and memento mori pendants in the form of coffins were also popular. Boxwood miniatures of religious scenes were frequently attached to a rosary that could, in turn, be fixed to a belt or chain. Such maximum minimisation enabled owners to carry the small works of art around them all the time. This corresponded with the pious wish for a portable, personal ‘prayer room’. Prayer and meditation, aided by the senses through touch and the contemplation of the object, were considered an aid to a person’s moral and ethical dealings within the framework of the contemporary Devotio Moderna.
These small precious objects were greatly valued and traded at high prices. They were, literally, status symbols, as the circle of customers listed above shows. They became an integral part of cabinets of curiosities from an early date.
The Latin inscriptions (epigrams, aphorisms and phrases) would have been familiar to the circle of those who commissioned such miniature carvings, not least of all through the writings of Erasmus of Rotterdam.
The iconographical composition of boxwood miniatures was based on a cleverly conceived theological concept, to which our small coffin testifies. As a memento mori it reminded the owner of his impending death. On opening the first level of the coffin, the dressed figure of a corpse can be seen – a so-called gisant, as sculptured recumbent effigies of the deceased are called.
An intensification of this takes on the form of the transi beneath that depicts a corpse already in a state of decomposition. Such cadaver figures are an usual feature, as seen when compared to two other examples of miniature coffins – in the Louvre and in Ranger’s House –which only include a gisant and a skeleton. This depiction is certainly attributed to the fascination at that time for anatomical studies, propagated by the publication of prints made by Andreas Vesalius, the personal physician of Emperor Karl V.
The small panel that separates the gisant from the transi is, at the same time, a diptych in the form of a two-part relief. One half depicts God wearing the imperial crown, with a sceptre and orb, surrounded by the Virgin Mary, angels and saints. The other half shows the resurrection of the dead on the Day of Judgment. The inscription clearly underlines the relevance for the faithful observer: SVRGITE MORTVI VENITE AD IVDICIVM (Arise ye dead, and come to judgment). The decomposing corpse here is confronted directly by Divine Judgment.
The panel resting on top of the transi figure was formerly hinged and could have been folded out. The transi can be folded showing the crux hastata (cross on a staff), the attribute of the Risen Christ.
Beneath this, on the third level, so to speak, is the depiction of a skeleton – the ultimate state of the decomposition process.
This small coffin is not only a masterpiece on account of its extremely artistic execution that points to the Circle of Adam Diercksz, but also with regard to how the theological message is conveyed. It typifies the quality of miniature carving in its heyday in the first third of the 16th century: a princely object for a cabinet of curiosities that, even in the 21st century, is an invitation to experience transcendency on a miniature scale.
This sarcophagus and the roof shaped lid at The Met Cloisters, New York, acc.no. 1985.136 used to belong together. The lid was acquired by Leopold Blumka from the Brummer collection in 1949 and than was given by his widow Ruth Blumka in honor of Ashton Hawkins in 1985. Our part came from a private Viennese collection, We do not know when the pieces got separated. The photo montage below shows how the two pieces originally worked together.
The piece closest to ours together with the lid at the Cloisters is the one in the Wernher Foundation, Ranger’s House, London, inv.no. 88259301, length 6.8 cm, width 2.4 cm, height 3.4 cm. Not only size but the same amount of levels in the casket and the lid with almost the same subjects carrying similar inscriptions make this and ours the most complicated of the now four miniature coffins known.
A coffin with only two levels in the casket and two levels in the lid is in the Louvre, Paris, inv.no. OA 5614, length 5.9 cm, width 2.2 cm, height 2.2 cm.
The least complicated one with only two levels in the lid and the only level in the coffin apparently missing is in the British Museum, London, inv.no. WB.240, length 5.8 cm, width 2.1 cm, height 1.6 cm.